First-place Steelers feel right at home in Cincinnati

Published 11:02 pm Saturday, October 18, 2008

Scalpers will sell tickets at a profit for a change. Opportunistic vendors will hawk Terrible Towels at souvenir stands outside the stadium. Thousands of fans in black-and-gold jerseys will whoop it up as they walk through the turnstiles, eager for the opening kickoff.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will feel right at home.

Paul Brown Stadium has been an incredibly cozy place to the Steelers (4-1), who take advantage of the home team’s struggles better than anyone else. Thousands of fans make the five-hour drive from Pittsburgh, buy tickets from disgruntled Bengals fans who can’t bear to watch, and cheer their team on to another victory.

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The Steelers have won their last seven games in Cincinnati, including a 2005 playoff victory when Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer got his knee torn up. The Bengals (0-6) are bad again, Palmer is hurt again, and the Terrible Towels will be out again when the Steelers return to their home-away-from-home Sunday.

‘‘It’s not something that gets old,’’ said coach Mike Tomlin, who won his inaugural visit as head coach last year. ‘‘You really appreciate it. Our fan support is unbelievable. I continue to be amazed to this day when we go on the road and the kind of support we get from our fans away from home.’’

The Bengals thought they were beyond this.

Home games against the Steelers became the symbol of their sad franchise in the 1990s and early 2000s. The visiting fans at Cinergy Field and Paul Brown Stadium would be so loud that the Bengals’ offense sometimes had to revert to a silent snap on its home field.

How embarrassing!

When the Bengals had that breakthrough season in 2005, the fans came back and Steelers fans had a tougher time finding open seats. The results didn’t change — the Steelers kept winning — but at least the home team had a fighting chance.

With the Bengals taking up the rear in the NFL again, the bad old days are back.

‘‘That’s what you get when you don’t win,’’ Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said.

The Bengals are a big underdog again, for a lot of reasons. It starts with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who got a chance to rest his sore passing shoulder during Pittsburgh’s bye week and should have a little more zip on his throws.

Plus, he’s never had a bad day back home.

Roethlisberger learned to play quarterback at Findlay High School, nestled in the heart of Cleveland Browns country. He refined his uncanny ability to avoid tackles at Miami University, less than an hour’s drive from the Bengals’ stadium. Then he got drafted by the Steelers, the biggest out-of-state rival for both Ohio teams.